PEI·Analysis

Will the P.E.I. election be haunted by ghosts of Liberals past?

On the same day Island voters are deciding whether to extend P.E.I.’s reign of Liberal rule, some ghosts of Liberal administrations past could be haunting leader Wade MacLauchlan’s party from an Island courtroom.

As e-gaming controversy returns to court, Greens, PCs vow to restore trust in government

The gutted interior of Province House in Charlottetown, shut down for reconstruction in 2014. The last government to occupy the building was led by Robert Ghiz. Some parties are proposing extensive renovations to P.E.I.'s systems of governance. (Jesara Sinclair/CBC)

On the same day Island voters will decide whether to extend P.E.I.'s reign of Liberal rule, some ghosts of Liberal administrations past could be haunting leader Wade MacLauchlan's party from an Island courtroom.

Election day just happens to coincide with the first of four days set aside next week for hearings in Capital Markets Technologies' $50-million lawsuit against the P.E.I. government. The company accuses government of "breach of its good faith performance of contract and failure to act honestly in the performance of its contractual obligations."

The case originated in the wake of a secretive and failed attempt by the Liberal government of Robert Ghiz to make P.E.I. a regulator of online gambling.

Wes Sheridan, centre-left, and Robert Ghiz surrounded by members of their Liberal caucus. Ghiz served as P.E.I. premier from 2007-2015. Sheridan was the province's finance minister during that period. (CBC)

The four days of hearings are to debate motions on behalf of the multiple defendants in the suit to have the case dismissed — as was an earlier statement of claim from CMT in 2016.

Fresh evidence available for the lawyers to cite in their arguments includes transcripts of cross-examinations of some key players in the previous Liberal administration, including former premier Robert Ghiz and former finance minister Wes Sheridan. Both are named as defendants in the suit.

Calls for inquiry in last election

In 2015, as Ghiz, Sheridan and others were bowing out of provincial politics, e-gaming and controversies surrounding P.E.I.'s provincial nominee program became key election issues, with the PCs, NDP and Greens all calling for a public inquiry.

Four years later there's no more talk of inquiries, but as those controversies continue through the court system the same three parties are talking about ways to increase government accountability and transparency, and as the Green Party puts it, to "re-establish trust in government."

Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker says his party wants to restore Islanders' trust in government. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"What we really need to do is to create more robust oversight mechanisms here so that we never, ever again end up with the situation that we have with PNP and e-gaming," said Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker.

Whistleblower suit

Three whistleblowers who spoke out in 2011 alleging bribery and fraud within P.E.I.'s provincial nominee program are now suing the province after P.E.I.'s privacy commissioner concluded in 2018 that government was directly or indirectly responsible for a privacy breach involving the three.

A statement of defence filed on behalf of Island Investment Development Inc., P.E.I.'s Crown lending agency, denies the allegations from the statement of claim and asks that the action be dismissed with costs.

Investigations by RCMP and border services into the women's 2011 allegations did not result in any charges.

But Bevan-Baker said the two lawsuits could come with "a very significant price tag" for Island taxpayers.

One measure both the Greens and PCs have included in their platforms is a provincial ombudsman, something that's been talked about on P.E.I. for years.

Independent child advocate

Both parties also promise to make the province's new child advocate fully independent.

Years after the jury at a coroner's inquest looking into the death of four-year-old Nash Campbell recommended P.E.I. create a position for a child advocate, the MacLauchlan government finally did so.

But unlike child advocates in every other province, P.E.I.'s is not an independent officer of the legislature. Instead it's a position that answers to cabinet and the premier.

The PCs also say they would expand the scope of P.E.I.'s Ethics Commissioner, a position created by MacLauchlan and again a position that serves under the premier.

Under Dennis King the PCs say they would give opposition parties the majority on legislative standing committees, to prevent a government majority from shutting down lines of inquiry and blocking witnesses from being called. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

The Tories said they would make that a full-time, arms-length position with the authority to address conflicts of interest, ethics and lobbying issues. The NDP also propose expanding that position in their platform.

Shift power to opposition

And PC Leader Dennis King said his party would shift the balance of power on legislative standing committees from government to opposition parties, to strip government of the ability to stymie opposition parties when they try to call witnesses, as the Liberals did when opposition MLAs tried to call witnesses to talk about their role in the e-gaming affair.

"By shutting down debate on these committees you frustrate the committees and you frustrate Islanders," said King. "Islanders want this information and I think it's important for our legislature to provide a vehicle for that information to be shared and discussed."

Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan says that from the time he became premier, his response to controversies from the previous Liberal administration has been the same: 'That's not the way I do business.' (Brian McInnis/CBC)

NDP Leader Joe Byrne said the thing that would most help to improve transparency would be to add another party to the legislature — the NDP — saying he's seen it happen over the past four years as the Greens joined the House.

"When we put all the voices at the table, then there's a little bit of sunlight that gets into these discussions, and sunlight is the biggest disinfectant," said Byrne.

'Not the way I do business'

In their platform, the Liberals point to reforms brought in under the MacLauchlan administration: campaign finance reforms which brought an end to political donations from corporations and unions; a lobbyist registry which came into effect April 1; and whistleblower protection legislation passed in the fall of 2017 but is not yet proclaimed.

Today MacLauchlan points to his actions prior to the 2015 election, when he called in the auditor general to investigate e-gaming, and when he created a new position for P.E.I.'s ethics commissioner.

"I said this is not the way I do business," MacLauchlan recalled. "What I hear … is that people respect the fact that in the time that we've been in government they don't see anything that they would call a scandal or they don't see anything that raises concerns when it comes to trust in government.

"I'm proud of that … that's what I intend to do, and that's what I meant when I said that's not the way I do business."

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About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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